Diving into Culture, Conservation and Virtual Reality: Buglasan 2023 Festival

 In environmental education, Virtual Reality, Zamboanguita

In the heart of Dumaguete at Freedom Park, the Buglasan Festival 2023 unfolded as a vibrant celebration like no other. Spanning from October 14th to 22nd, this years ‘fiesta of fiestas’ brought together the unique spirits of the 6 cities and 19 municipalities residing within Negros Oriental. The province’s rich heritage was shared through a colourful journey of traditional dances, delectable local cuisine and more.

Buglasan Festival derives its name from “Buglas”. “Buglas” or “Buglas Insulis”, was the island’s name in the pre-Hispanic era referring to the tall “marsh grass” that grew in abundance. The word and the festival, Buglasan, was borne of this; created to honour the beauty and people that live within Negros Oriental. An alternate translation of the word “Buglas” in Ilonggo is “to cut off”. Despite this meaning, the festival encapsulates an essence of unity, having brought the province’s many communities together since 1981. Due to COVID-19 and the relatively slow recovery and return to normal in the Philippines, MCP was unable to attend the festival for the previous three years. This hiatus, however, only encouraged us to return to Zamboanguita’s booth with an absolute bang.

The opening night before the booth was officially opened

Amidst the festivities, together with Zamboanguita, Marine Conservation Philippines (MCP) helped co-host the ground floor of an absolutely incredible booth. Our design was a portal to a world beneath the sea, with an aim to represent the amazing ocean life and conservation in Zamboanguita. A remarkable virtual reality (VR) dive experience was the highlight, and little did we know that it would reach more than 2000 festival-goers in the coming week!

Running up to the event, weeks of work went into all the incredible city and municipality stalls of Buglasan. We owe our success both to the hard work of staff and to the hard work of our media intern, Queenie, who designed captivating infographics and stunning coral decorations. We cannot appreciate enough our resident photographers, Barbara and Kauê, for toiling endlessly over the mesmerising videography on our many screens and VR, as well as designing the children’s survey game. We must also highlight the work of our maintenance team and the Zamboanguita Local Governing Unit, who built and helped present our booth in the days leading up to the festival, bringing the idea to life piece by piece.

Finally, the setup was ready, and the first day of Buglasan arrived! With VR headsets a go, a wave projector running, the impressive LED wall showcasing video of a local MPA, and a sense of anticipation in the air, we waited for our first guests…

What an opening night! The booth was packed with crowds of interested people, learning and laughing. The VR set was never put down, and photos were snapped continuously. Children were sprinting around, hunting for different marine animals that had been hidden amongst the walls’ coral reefs. People asked questions and spent the night exploring the delights of each town Negros Oriental had to offer.

Virtual reality goggles in use at the Buglasan booth, 2023

The electric buzz and bustle continued for each of the consecutive days. Every night, a different group of our volunteers would attend with the staff to represent MCP, and to enjoy the festivities for themselves. Dressing up, taking photos and spreading our message with the festival goers; they were awesome!

It’d be fair to say that the international volunteers and VR dive experience stole the show. Looks of awe, as visitors on the VR systems were right between the vibrant corals and graceful snappers. Many of those who participated had never explored the ocean’s depths before, and to be able to do so while completely dry was an incredible experience for many. In Marine Conservation Philippines, we of course hope the experience stirred a newfound appreciation for our fragile ecosystems, especially with the many children who did their first “dry dive” with us. Furthermore, with this test run, the VR sets hold very exciting promises indeed to the future education of MCP’s volunteers, as a powerful tool in biology training in a way that bridges the classroom setting with the immersion of actual scuba diving.

This festival was an invaluable opportunity to engage with the public about marine conservation efforts, and to show them what amazing wonders lie beneath the waves of the region. Attendees learned about Zamboanguita’s support of vital work in MPA monitoring, community education projects and the importance of protecting marine life for future generations’ stability.

The final night arrived all too soon, with an ultimate celebration of award winning photographers, booth winners, pageantry, more dancing, more singing and even more eating! Saddened it was all over too quickly, but with hearts full, we packed up our booth and headed home.

As we reminisce about the Buglasan 2023 Festival, we are reminded of the power of joining hands for a common cause. In Negros, it’s not just about celebrating the provinces vibrant culture; it’s also about preserving the marine beauty (the vital sources that come from the sea) that helps define the region. We hope that this week showed people that we can all play a role in protecting our planet’s precious environment one person at a time. So, until the next Buglasan, let’s dance, dine, and dive into the beauty of the incredible coral reef of Negros Oriental.

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